Please enjoy this blog post co-authored by Kristin Rhodes, Senior Practice Manager, Paul Hastings LLP and Mike Ertel, KM Attorney, Paul Hastings LLP.
Our previous posts discussed practice management generally and how it adds value to law firms. This post discusses how to introduce an embedded practice manager.
A new practice manager has several process goals, including:
- Obtain holistic view of priorities
- Generate simple and high value wins
- Gain champions
- Build trust
Reaching these goals is an iterative process requiring a slow build of reliance over time. They are also non-sequential and can inform each other. As you learn about priorities, you will find opportunities to create wins that will build trust and gain more champions, leading to new priorities and deliverables. Your entry point depends on firm organization and the reason for your introduction, i.e., did the practice leaders request help or is it being foisted upon them?
The most important thing you can do in the first days as a practice manager is listen. Meet as many people in the practice as you can. Give them an opportunity to tell you about what they do, their pain points, and their complaints. Then start assessing easy fixes (a distribution list or a calendar) and more difficult fixes (they think the billable hour target is unreasonable given their business development needs). (Hint: Doing the easy tasks first can give you a quick win and help build your credibility!)
Obtain Holistic View of Priorities
Starting with a listening tour can give you a sense of collective issues. Ideally you should get introduced to the entire group by the practice leader either by email or during a practice group meeting. They should let the group know you will be meeting with everyone. Then, you can follow up with individual meetings (aim for 15-30 minutes each). One-on-one meetings are preferred because people tend to open up more without an audience. If the group is too large, you can prioritize individual meetings with certain people and meet with others in small groups.
We’ve had the most success meeting with associates first, then counsel and partners, then other timekeepers. Associates tend to have great insights but don’t always have the requisite platform for change. They are often full of ideas and grateful for the chance to express them. The more frequently a problem comes up, the more pressing it likely is.
While law firms tend to be hierarchical, remember that your goal is to provide the maximum value to the group. Often that means prioritizing practice group leadership and partner complaints, but sometimes helping a paralegal or solving an ancillary administrative issue may be even more beneficial to the practice than addressing a specific pain point of a partner.
Generate Simple and High Value Wins
As you gather information and sort through priorities, start acting immediately. The ideal first projects are simple to do and have strong impact on the group. For example: set up a practice group call to highlight wins and share industry updates; create custom reports that show productivity or time entry deficits; analyze expenditures on the operations budget and identify potential areas for cutback (or investment). The best first “wins” are those things that seem obvious and necessary, but no one has had the bandwidth to do yet. In addition, these wins will add to your credibility and build up your trust.
Ideally, your practice leader is your de facto champion. But if they are not, you can still identify champions elsewhere in the practice and use those relationships to build wins that show the practice leader your value.
Practice management is unique because your remit includes taking over some of the practice leader’s responsibilities, particularly on sensitive matters at the core of their business. This is in contrast to support from other groups, like IT or Finance, where the leader may not have expertise in those areas. For practice management, the burden of establishing trust is high. If you need to gain other champions first, identify who those other influential people might be and make sure to support them.
As you address pain points, ideally you will begin to build the trust of the practice group. If you didn’t already have their confidence, they will see the value of your role with each incremental improvement. The more problems you solve, the more trust and reliance you get.
This is the most critical process goal. Once you have the practice leader’s trust, you will be able to push things forward without their oversight on every detail. You will be able to run the business of the practice group, allowing them to focus on their clients and bringing in revenue. This doesn’t happen overnight.
Bottom line, this is a marathon. There may be a sprint at the beginning for quick wins to gain credibility, but to truly embed yourself and gain trust, it takes time. With planning and patience you can be successful, creating a more profitable and efficient business.